Metrics and Style in Ovid’s Metamorphoses

Haydon Alexander (’24) argues that the relative quickness of Ovid’s hexameter lines is a key aspect of his style.

Towards the end of his life, Ovid wrote letters to friends in Rome describing the misery of his exile on the frontier of the empire in what is now Romania. In a letter addressed to Cornelius Severus Ovid considers the reasons why he no longer gets any enjoyment out of writing poety (Epistulae ex Ponto 4.2.33–34):

or because composing a poem with no one to recite it to

is just the same as dancing [lit. “making rhythmical gestures”] in the dark.

 sive quod in tenebris numerosos ponere gestus,

quodque legas nulli scribere carmen, idem est.

Ovid doesn’t mean that he is sad that his poems aren’t being read (in fact, his exilic poetry was sent to Rome and was read). Rather, he sees his writing as joyless without a live audience to spur him on. The way Ovid describes dancing (“making rhythmical gestures”) is significant, since numerosus can refer to both rhythmical movements of the body and rhythmical speech, and Ovid himself in a famous passage uses the word numerus to mean “poetic meter” (Amores 1.1.1).  Ovid’s letter from exile gets at the joy of performing Ovid’s work live, and one of the principal reasons for this is because of Ovid’s deep mastery of meter. The importance of meter is easily lost when we read silently, so to that end, we will explore below some of the special qualities of Ovid’s metrics, and the way in which he discusses meter directly in his work.

In his surviving corpus Ovid wrote in only two meters . In the Metamorphoses, the nominally epic poem which describes the history of the world told in myth, he wrote in dactylic hexameter, in which each line has six feet of either a long and two short syllables (a dactyl) or two long syllables (a spondee). This is the meter of Homer, Hesiod, and Vergil, among other writers of epic poems, and it is first discussed critically by Aristotle, who considers it to be the proper meter of epic poetry (Poetics 1459b. See Morgan 2000: 99–120, esp. 99-100). For a more in-depth look at how the meter looks in practice with visuals and video accompaniment, look here and here.

Perhaps his most famous (in infamous) work, the Ars Amatoria, “The Art of Love,” a supposedly didactic but also highly unserious set of poems on seduction, was composed, like the rest of his works apart from the Metamorphoses, in elegiac couplets: lines are in pairs, the first of which is metrically identical to a dactylic hexameter, and the second of which is a dactylic pentameter, i.e., a hexameter line with five rather than six feet (See Claasen 1989 and Herr 1937). This is a meter which was also pioneered by Ancient Greeks, and was commonly used for love poetry in the first century B.C. Rome by Catullus, Tibullus, Propertius, and Ovid himself. The ways in which Ovid uses meter in tandem with a vast array of poetic devices is the subject of many complete books, so we will focus here on some of the most distinguishing ways that Ovid plays with meter, and also some of the unique flair that come from his metrical self-awareness in his own writing.

Ovid is often self-referential and metaliterary. At the start of the Amores, Ovid’s poetic collection depicting a love affair with a woman he calls Corinna, he argues with Cupid concerning his meter (Amores 1.1.–2 trans. Slavitt 2011):

Arms and the violent deeds of men fighting in battle …

Those are the noble subjects I would address

in the grave meters suited to grave matters, but no,

Cupid appeared to trim my lines by a foot.

Arma gravi numero violentaque bella parabam

edere, materia conveniente modis.

par erat inferior versus—risisse Cupido

dicitur atque unum surripuisse pedem.

In the first place, he puns on the meter, writing that Cupid steals his “foot,” referencing the fact that the elegiac couplet has one fewer foot than the equivalent 2 lines of dactylic hexameter. But more than this, it is clear that he gives particular weight to the thought of meter, opening the work with the “grave meter” he is talking about is dactylic hexameter. Conversely, he calls his elegiac couplets “Rather more informal, playful even­­­–despite my serious aims” (nec mihi materia est numeris levioribus apta, 1.19–20 trans Slavitt).  He writes as if he is trapped by his metrical choice. Of course, he makes that choice himself, but this is an instance where Ovid is close to talking to his audience about how important meter is to him.

So, Ovid uses meter as a shortcut to let his reader know what to expect, and he uses the history of both his meters to prime his readers for what his works will contain. Indeed, the Amores all deal with love, and as he promises, not in a particularly serious way. Ovid writes a ridiculous scene (1.6) that has him lying outside the door of his love, begging the doorman to let him in. Another reads like a limerick about “an over-the-hill playgirl” (1.8).

In the Metamorphoses, Ovid plays around with expectation. Because the work is written in hexameters, we are asked to consider it an epic. However, it skirts many of the “rules” to which earlier epics adhere. Most obviously, it does not have a unified narrative in the way that the works of Homer or others have. Moreover, Ovid does not adhere to his own statement in the Amores about “grave meters,” because like the rest of his works, Ovid is often deeply unserious in tone. An example is when he tells the story of how Tiresias is blinded in a short story that talks about Jupiter and Juno arguing about who gets more pleasure from sex (3.316–38). This is hardly the stuff of grand stories, but it is in Ovid’s “epic.”

Metrically, Ovid’s epic differs from that of his slightly earlier contemporary, Vergil. Metrical analysis shows that Vergil’s Aeneid is relatively dominated by spondees, the feet which have two long syllables. This means that his work encourages the speaker to slow down and to luxuriously take in each line. The Metamorphoses has more dactylic lines, with many feet consisting of a long followed by two short syllables (see Ben Johnson’s online tutorials on the metrical composition of Ovid and of Vergil; and Herr 1937: 5). This results in a poem which gallops along relatively quickly, contrasted with Vergil’s statelier pace. One of many illustrative instances is when he tells of Apollo’s chase of Daphne (Met. 1.525-39). During the lead up to the chase, as Apollo realizes that his words will not convince her to be with him, the lines move slowly, but as the chase commences and reaches its climax, the lines become more dactylic, making the poetry move faster and faster. This is one instance where Ovid uses speed to evoke the content of his verse. This results in a tone which matches the tenor of Ovid’s writing which is opposed (though neither superior or inferior) to Vergil: where Vergil feels grand and momentous, Ovid does something else: his writing is foremost pure, unadulterated entertainment that moves. A visualization of a typical passage in which spondees are coded green (courtesy of the website Hypotactic) shows the extent of the tendencies.

Scanned Ovid
Ovid, Metamorphoses 1.525-40. Scanned passages of Metamorphoses and the Aeneid show the difference in scansion between the works. Dactyls are shown in orange and Spondees in green.
Scanned Vergil
Vergil, Aeneid 1.525-540. Particularly in the middle of Ovid’s passage, at the height of Apollo’s chase of Daphne, note the differences in dactyls and spondees. Graphics courtesy of hypotactic.

But it is not merely in the Metamorphoses where Ovid is uniquely dactylic. In a study of the elegiac couplets of Ovid, Propertius, and Tibullus, Maurice Platnauer (1951: 36–37) found that the line type with four dactyls (the most “galloping” line) occurs 6.7% of the time in Ovid’s elegiac work, more than three times as often as that of Tibullus and over five times as often as in Propertius (see Greenberg 1987). Conversely, lines with four spondees (the type of line which most encourages slowing down) are far less likely to occur in Ovid, about five time less likely than in Tibullus and more than eight times less likely than in Propertius. So, it is not only in the Metamorphoses that Ovid uses the mechanics of meter in ways different from his contemporaries and those who came before him.

Why did Ovid make his poetry move more quickly than that of his contemporaries? Why, when he says his opinion on what hexameters should be in his early works, does he contradict himself when he writes without the “epic grandeur” (Jones 2007: 10–11) for which he himself advocates? Does he actually believe in a “proper” meter for each type of poetry? And indeed, why is he self-referential about him poems in his own work? Peter Jones (2007: 11–15) suggests that Ovid is keenly aware that he shouldn’t (and probably can’t) recreate the spark of his epic predecessors when he writes the Metamorphoses, and that this is what inspires him to write such a unique epic. Applying this insight to meter, we can see why Ovid was so intentional and unique about meter. He attempts to modernize the poetic form by removing what he perhaps saw as the dust and stuffiness from Vergil and providing something modern and entertaining in a new way. He might get at the entertainment from mere subject matter, but as the saying goes, “it’s all in the delivery.” By galloping along through his poetry, Ovid brings new life into old stories in the Metamorphoses, and similarly, he brings new levity to much of the scenes of his elegiac works, and through self-reference, he almost begs his audience to notice the difference. Moreover, where Vergil and other predecessors focus on the epic, yet inherently distant and even somewhat sanitized, grand old scenes to elicit reactions from his audience, Ovid takes all the little absurd scenes and jolts his audience through them, making them feel a range of emotions: a range which can only occur to full effect with the speed and inevitability of a live poem, sung in its unique galloping meter.

Meter is just one of the things that make Ovid’s poetry unique, but it is reasonable to suspect that it might have been the thing that Ovid thought most unique about his work. Thus, in a moment in his later poems which reads in a “sad clown” sort of way, he puns on his meter by saying (Tristia 1.15-6):

Go, book, and greet places dear with my words:

I will touch them with what ‘foot’ I may.

vade, liber, verbisque meis loca grata saluta:

contingam certe quo licet illa pede

He goes on to ask forgiveness if his work is not as good for his not being in Rome to write and present it (1.35–49). Even towards the end of his life, he is still self-conscious and self-referential concerning meter. He seems to think that in exile he has lost control of his work because he cannot express himself in meter. So, unlike the modern argument that meter constrains poetry, for Ovid, meter is essential to the character of his work. Without his intense attention towards and self-awareness of his meter, the unique attitude which Ovid achieves in his work would lack its enduring strength.


Claasen, Jo-Marie. 1989. “Meter and Emotion in Ovid’s Exilic Poetry,” Classical World 82.5: 351–365.

Greenberg Nathan A. 1987. “Metrics of the Elegiac Couplet,” Classical World 80.4: 233-41.

Herr, Margaret Whilldin. 1937. “The Additional Short Syllables in Ovid,” Language 13.2: 5–31

Jones, Peter. 2007. Reading Ovid: Stories from the Metamorphoses. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Morgan, Llwellyn. 2000. “Metre Matters: Some Higher-Level Metrical Play in Latin Poetry,” Proceedings of the Cambridge Philological Society, 2000.6: 99–120.

Platnauer, Maurice. 1951. Latin Elegiac Verse: A Study of the Metrical Usages of Tibullus, Propertius and Ovid. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Slavitt David R. 2011. Love Poems, Letters, and Remedies of Ovid. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

Ovid and the Female Experience

Ovid’s mythological heroines can display heightened reactions to their situations which everyday women can still relate to, argues Kimberly Tyson (’25)

Heroides (“Heroines”) by the Roman poet Ovid is a series of verse letters written in the voices of mythological women. Each character composes a letter to her lover, airing grievances that both her lover and the reader might disregard as inconsequential. But Ovid explored these intense emotions of mythological women towards their romantic partners to highlight the experiences of women in real life. Ovid illustrated the universal themes of abandonment, honor, and agency through the amplified frustrations of mythological women to make the reader understand these experiences through a female lens.

woman's hand writing a letter
Portrait of Penelope, detail from Héroïdes ou épitres d’Ovide, traduites par Octavien de Saint Gelais. Huntington Library via Wikimedia Commons.

Ovid emphasized the range of emotions from fear to fury in the heroines’ reactions to abandonment. Abandonment defines the Heroides but affects each character differently. Penelope, Queen of Ithaca, worries that her husband Odysseus, absent for the past twenty years, “could be captive now to a foreign love” (1.76). Phyllis laments to Demophoon that “like a madwoman I even had your damaged ships rebuilt…ready for your desertion” (2.45–49), and Aeneas similarly abandons Dido once her usefulness ended (7.9–10.) Briseis is no queen, but a slave who feels “contemptible, forsaken,” with “fear shak[ing her] bones” at her fate if Achilles leaves her behind (3.81–82). The cause of their worries vary: some fear for their own security, or what their lover himself will suffer. The heroines struggle to cope with the loss, suffering at home unlike their ambitious lovers. They often have little say in their lover’s departure, even when they wield vast societal power otherwise.

The heroines’ own dignity—as well as the honor they bestow upon their lovers—are united in their righteous anger. Phyllis cries to Demophoon, “The lover and the woman were deceived by your words: may the gods let this be the one thing you are known for!” (2.55–56). Dido tells Aeneas she hopes “the image of the wife you cheated would stand before your eyes” (7.63–64). Queen Hypsipyle curses Jason and his new wife Medea to “‘live man and bride in an accursed bed!’” for his infidelity (6.163–164). The heroines’ wrath is completely justified: their lovers were the first to break the heroines’ trust. Even when they can do nothing about it, the women fully express the truth of their own experience.

Ovid explored the women’s lack of agency in their relationships, sometimes contrasting it with their agency in other parts of their lives. Dido furiously asks Aeneas “Who’d give possession of his fields to an unknown?” like she did. (7.17–18). She reminds him of her accomplishments: “[I] endured harsh journeys, pursued by enemies…and I won this shore, I founded Carthage…a cause of envy” (7.113–122). She desperately promises, “If your mind’s eager for war…we’ll have no lack of enemies to offer” (7.157–159). In contrast, Briseis is a non-Greek slave with zero agency who relies on the love and mercy of her superior Achilles, whose decisions control her future (3.1–2, 59–62, 99–102). The queens exert agency separate from their lovers, through their own station and merit, which initially lets them choose to assist their lovers. But their lack of agency in their relationships consumes them, lovers robbing them of power.

Penelope’s frustrations with Odysseus represent those of real-life women who must intelligently manage their lovers’ absence. Penelope berates Odysseus for making her “fear everything, insanely, [with] my anxieties…open to wide speculation” (1.71–72). Penelope uses her demure fidelity against the suitors who have besieged her home, making her an unwilling hostess in Odysseus’s absence. (1.84–86, 91–95). Ovid demonstrated her quiet, effective intelligence and strong internal motivations despite the arrogant men around her. Penelope’s complicated feelings about Odysseus are a nuanced representation of women’s real-life concerns. Phyllis, however, cannot cope with being exploited by Demophoon.

Ovid used Phyllis to explore the bleaker experiences of women who suffer betrayal by men they trusted after offering their support. She is the most pitiful of all the women in the Heroides, reflecting the depression of well-meaning women who undeserving men take advantage of, and for whom the women remain desperate. Phyllis gave everything to Demophoon and received nothing but heartbreak. Phyllis is a warning against naivete, wasting away as she pines for Demophoon’s unlikely return (2.99–102). Her suffering is passive and desolate, but the images she conjures of suicide—“The tide will carry me, abandoned, to your shore” —are almost dream-like (2.131–144). Through Phyllis, Ovid represents the fallacy of naïve trust and romanticism, which results in the exploitation of a woman with a good heart.

Dido, in contrast, is much angrier about her turmoil. Ovid uses Dido’s unhinged emotional perspective to demonstrate the terrifying extent of women’s anger toward traitorous lovers. Queen Dido is a powerful character, but her love for Aeneas has reduced her to unbecoming, dramatic behavior. She desperately wants Aeneas to marry and rule alongside her, even declaring, “If you are ashamed of me being your wife, let me be called not bride, but host; as long as she is yours, Dido will endure to be whatever you wish” (7.167–169). Dido’s anger and desperation at his betrayal is deranged, but Ovid validated her fury. He acknowledged women’s full, unpretty breakdowns, and licensed not being strategically subdued like Penelope, nor weepy like Phyllis. Ovid took Dido seriously as a complex, powerful woman who demands both his and the reader’s attention.

He treated Briseis with similar care, though her situation requires a different degree of understanding. Ovid portrayed Briseis’s enslavement with nuance to highlight her unique suffering and elaborate on her marginalization. Briseis lost her livelihood to the Greeks in the Trojan War but feels that her master Achilles “alone made up for them,” (3.51) even though she worries he will “reject and shun [her]” (3.55-56). Briseis has the least societal power of all the heroines, particularly when Greek commander-in-chief Agamemnon takes her away from Achilles, who is “idle, and slow to anger” in recovering her, for which he has absolutely no obligation (3.21–24, 3.39–42). Ovid explored her unique position at the bottom of society to demonstrate the full female experience. The reader feels uncomfortable and hopeless on her behalf as shares her confusion about the future state of her life. These mythological characters enabled Ovid to exaggerate and dramatize their problems which are relevant and understandable to his audience.

Ovid used the inherently dramatized stories of these mythological women to emphasize the universal struggles they portray. Because they are mythological characters, the heroines can display heightened reactions to their situations which everyday women can still relate to. The suffering of being abandoned by a lover has transcended women’s lives throughout history. Even when one’s lover is gone because of duty or necessity, anger and frustration arise from the fear of loss, infidelity, and abandonment. Terrifying questions persist: What will happen to my lover? Why can’t he stay safe with me? Will someone else take advantage of me? Though Ovid was not necessarily unique among his contemporaries in depicting well-developed female characters, by exclusively dedicating the Heroides to female characters, Ovid demonstrated their perspectives to a higher degree.

Ovid examined his chosen themes through a lens that illuminates the nuances of female suffering. Ovid refrained from demeaning the women’s experiences and fleshed them out with their own motivations, emotions, and actions without the distraction of male perspectives. He filled in a gap in his own storytelling and brought forth a necessary set of poems that voiced all female perspectives on the themes of abandonment, honor, and agency. Even though some of the heroines exert astounding political and social power, all experience their world in a distinctly female way. Men do not take the heroines seriously and treat the women’s desires as trivial in contrast to their own heroic goals. If the heroines were men, their lovers would not treat them with such callous disrespect.

Ovid used the mythological women of the Heroides to explore the full range of women’s experiences with abandonment, honor, and agency. He contrasted the characters both against each other and the freedom and dominance of their lovers. Penelope conveys the intelligent tact that women must display when their lover’s absence has made them lose agency in their lives. Phyllis’s desolate emotions represent the depression of kind, exploited women, though Dido’s reaction to the same situation is much more furious. Through Briseis, Ovid explored an enslaved women who is keenly aware of her lack of agency. The characters’ dramatic stories let Ovid illuminate real women’s suffering for his audience and validate women’s experiences throughout time.

Ovid’s Thank You to Roman Women

Lindsay Werner (’25) examines the roles of women in Roman religion, as seen in Ovid’s Fasti

How did ancient Roman women participate in religious rituals and pray to the gods? How did Roman religion reflect the values of Roman women? We can find partial answers to these questions in Ovid’s Fasti, sometimes translated as “The Book of Days” or “On the Roman Calendar,” a long Latin poem published in AD 8. The Fasti explains the origins and practices of Roman religious festivals, as well as the origins of constellations, for the first six months of the year. Ovid uses these celebrations to show the role of Roman women in religion, in which he states, in the case of the Matronalia, what the women say in their prayers, which shows the significance of their words to the gods. During Book 4 of the Fasti, which covers the month of April, women separately honored Venus, the Phrygian mother goddess Cybele, and Ceres (goddess of grain). For Venus, Ovid tells us how the women would bathe the statue after taking off her jewelry (4.133–39). He also explains how Cybele came to Rome. A woman named Claudia Quinta prays to Cybele, asking the goddess to help her move the boat and prove that she is a virgin, and Claudia manages to move the boat (4.255–328). Each of these festivals reflected the values of women within Roman culture and religion. While the festivals of Lupercalia and Matronalia focused on piety and fertility, as well as them being married, the festival of Cybele emphasizes the importance of chastity for Roman women.

Watchcase cover: Alcyone Praying to Juno
Watchcase cover: Alcyone Praying to Juno. Jean II Reymond French, Limoges, ca. 1615–25. New York, Metropolitan Museum of Art.

To understand women in Roman religion, however, we first need to explore how this religion differs from others. Roman religion didn’t have one sacred text. The Romans worshiped many gods, sacrificed animals or dedicated votives such as statues or temples to these gods, and they were accepting of other gods from different pantheons by associating the other gods with their own. The Egyptian goddess Isis, for example, was very popular in ancient Rome and was associated with the Roman goddesses Ceres and Venus. Modern religions such as Christianity differ from Roman religion in many ways, such as in having one sacred text and worshiping one God. Some might assume that women are treated similarly in ancient and modern religions. True, both religions are patriarchal, but there are significant differences when it comes to gender. The Catholic Church doesn’t allow women to be a part of the higher ranks within the church, like becoming priests or the Pope. Ancient Roman religion, by contrast, had both male and female priests. Female priests in Rome show that some parts of their religion weren’t completely male dominated. There were many female priests in Roman religion (DiLuzio 2016: 79). A few among many in Rome would be the Vestal Virgins, as well as another priest named Alexandria who served the gods Bacchus and Isis, as recorded on her tombstone (Lefkowitz and Fant 2005: 302). Although Rome was a patriarchal society, the presence of female priestesses conveyed how women would show their piety to the gods.

Some modern religions try to control the lives of women, telling them what they can’t wear, or what they can’t do, because it goes against their sacred texts. In Roman religion, women weren’t being fully controlled in the same way as they are in some monotheistic religions. Monotheistic religions pray to one male god, while polytheistic religions, such as the Romans, pray to several female deities, such as Diana and Juno. These goddesses are both respected and feared in the same way as the male gods. This switch from multiple female goddesses to one male God could be seen as a lack of respect towards women in certain monotheistic religions.

In the Fasti Ovid reflects women’s concerns and tells them what they want to hear. Namely, if they want to have a good marriage, a good reputation, and kids, then they should pray to the gods. Additionally, women didn’t want to die in childbirth, which was more common before modern medicine, so he recommended that they pray to the goddess Lucina for an easy and safe delivery (2.449–452, 3.253–58). As scholar Elaine Fantham puts it, “…some of the most important aspects of religion in women’s lives in the books … [are] marriage, chastity, fertility, and childbirth” (Fantham 2002: 28).

One main goal in Ovid’s Fasti is explaining why they perform these rituals and festivals, and he adds the female perspectives to these festivals, especially the ones from February 15th (Lupercalia) and March 1st (Matronalia). He not only tells the audience what they do during those festivals, but he also explains the origins of the holidays. For the Lupercalia and Matronalia, these origins are especially important because Ovid is acknowledging the importance of these women’s needs by saying that they were there at the beginning of Rome itself, referring in both cases to the myth of the abduction of the Sabine women. An interpretation of this idea is that Ovid says nothing can get done without women, whether that is in the past or the present. In this way, he could be imagining this book being read to a female audience.

The Lupercalia was one of the important festivals for Roman women. During this festival, two men, chosen by priests, would run down the streets nude and they would strike women lightly with strips of the dead goat hide as they ran; since it was believed to give the women fertility, the woman would want to get hit by the goat hide (Shelton 1998: 381–82). The origin of the Lupercalia centers around the Sabine women who were taken from their home by Romulus, the son of Mars and Rhea Silvia, and the founder of Rome. He took these women by force because he needed to populate his new city, and since the Sabine men said no to having their women marry Roman men. After the woman had adjusted to their new homes and new husbands, they tried having children, but nothing worked. Both the men and the women prayed to Juno, the goddess of marriage, and for an answer. Juno came and told them that they had to let a goat “mount” the women (Fasti 2.441. “Let a sacred billy-goat mount Italian matrons,” as translated by Nagle 1995:69). A prophet understood what the goddess had meant. He killed a goat, and the women turned their backs so that they could be hit by the goat skin, and nine months later, the women had children (2.425–452). This myth also shows the importance of female fertility for Rome’s origins. According to Fantham, “fertility was even more vital to society and to the woman’s self‐respect than fidelity” (Fantham 2002: 29).

Although the women prayed to the gods for things that would help themselves, they would also pray for their household and community. As Fantham writes, “When the women supplicated, it was… for the whole community, not just for themselves, and … their private devotions [were] … made on behalf of their whole household, rather than just their personal needs” (Fantham 2002: 27).

Another important religious festival for women in Ovid’s Fasti is the Matronalia, which took place on March 1st. This festival honored the goddess Juno Lucina. During this festival, married women gave sacrifices and asked for help with childbirth. Men asked the goddess for their wives to continue having good health. There would also be gift giving between husband and wife, along with friends and special others (Dolansky 2011: 191–194). The origins of this holiday return to the Sabine women, since Ovid writes about how they were forcibly taken from their families, and about what happened after they had their kids. The Sabine men and Romans were going to war with each other because the Sabine men were still mad about their women being without their permission. The woman stopped the two sides, since they didn’t want to lose their fathers nor their husbands. They took their children and stood in between the two armies, and it worked (3.179–234). This festival relates back to the Lupercalia, since Roman women also prayed to the goddess Lucina for a fast and healthy delivery on both holidays (2.449–452, 3.253–58). During the Matronalia, the women dedicated flowers to Juno Lucina, put flowers in their hair, and prayed to the goddess saying the following, as recommended by Ovid: “ [Say] ‘Lucina, you have brought us all to light.’/ Say, ‘Come answer the prayers of a woman in labor.’/But if any of you is pregnant, let her loosen her hair and pray/ that the goddess gently ease her delivery” (3.255-58, trans. Nagle 1995: 87–88).

These prayers give us insight into what the women were asking the goddess for during the festival, which relates to their duties as mothers. With this origin myth, Ovid seems to focus on how these Sabine women brought unity to Rome, and the Matronalia celebrated that continued unity. The importance of motherhood is also shown in this story, since the women were able to stop the war by showing both sides their children, who were both Roman and Sabine. In addition, while referencing the role of women in Roman society from the Lupercalia, Fanny Dolansky points out the connection between childbirth and the state: “Childbirth was also … the vital service married women provided for the family, which ultimately benefited the state” (Dolansky 2011: 199). Women, however, weren’t only considered mothers in ancient Rome. They could be poets, gladiators, painters, actresses and singers, dressmakers, and doctors (Lefkowitz and Fant 2005: 1, 213–15, 216, 218, 219, 264–65).

From all of this, we could ask one question, “Why?” Why did Ovid choose to not only write about religious festivals, but also make a point of showing a representation of women, not just in some of the festivals, but also in the origins themselves? He may have wanted to recognize the significance of women within their religion, in which they would have their voices heard by others. Being a woman in ancient Rome was not easy. When Ovid acknowledges these women, from both the past and present, and in connection to their religion, one could interpret this as his way of saying to all these women, “Thank you.”


DiLuzio, Meghan J.  2016. “Salian Virgins, Sacerdotes, and Ministrae.” In A Place at the Altar: Priestesses in Republican Rome. Princeton University Press

Dolansky, Fanny. 2001. “Reconsidering the Matronalia and Women’s Rites,” Classical World (2011)

Fantham, Elaine. 2002. “The Fasti as a Source for Women’s Participation in Roman Cult.” In Geraldine Herbert-Brown, ed., Ovid’s Fasti: Historical Readings at its Bimillennium. Oxford University Press.

Lefkowitz, Mary R. and Maureen B. Fant. 2005. Women’s life in Greece and Rome: a source book in translation (Third edition). Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press.

Nagle, Betty Rose. 1995 Ovid’s Fasti: Roman Holidays. Bloomington: Indiana University Press.

Shelton, Jo-Ann. 1998. As the Romans Did: A Source Book in Roman Social History. New York: Oxford University Press.